Bird of the Week: Dickcissel

Dickcissel by Curtis Hart
An adult male dickcissel sings in a Midwestern prairie. Photo by Curtis Hart.

Stroll across a Midwestern prairie anytime between late spring and early fall, and you’ll rarely be out of ear shot of the dickcissel’s distinctive trill: see-see, dick-dick, ciss-ciss-ciss. Stocky, streaked, meadowlark-lookalikes with a cardinal’s stout beak, these birds throng North American grassland habitats—from the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas to the High Plains of Texas—where they feed on seeds and insects.

During the breeding season, dickcissels wander widely in search of good habitat. The birds are often found nesting east of Appalachia, hundreds of miles from their core range.

As dickcissels prepare for fall migration, they gather in huge flocks that can number in the thousands. The birds winter along the west coasts of Mexico and Central America and in northern South America. Their winter flocks may grow into the millions—a phenomenon that can have deadly consequences: Farmers, who frequently view dickcissels as agricultural pests, are able to shoot large numbers of the birds in a short amount of time.

But dickcissels, like other grassland birds, also face problems in their summer breeding range. At the time of European settlement, some 360 million acres of native grassland cloaked the midsection of North America. Today this mixture of shortgrass, tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie has been plowed, paved and drained into a mere shadow of its former self; only about 70 million acres remain.

Grassland birds have suffered along with their habitat. Over the past 30 years, three out of four grassland bird species have declined in abundance, and the birds have exhibited the steepest population drops of any group of North American birds. Fully 40 percent of the continent’s declining bird species are those that depend on grasslands.

Although the bird’s populations are more-or-less stable today, dickcissel numbers fell by 5.5 percent a year between 1966 and 1979 and are dropping again in some areas.

Backyard tips: While dickcissels are not commonly spotted at feeders, they do occasionally visit seed feeders, particularly young or vagrant birds in need of refueling during spring and fall migration. Drab first-winter dickcissels are often seen foraging with groups of house sparrows, so check out the flocks at your feeders closely.

Sources:Vanishing Voices” by T. Edward Nickens, National Wildlife, October/November 2010; Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds and National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Learn more about the threats facing grassland birds and efforts underway to help them. Find out how NWF is helping protect native grasslands though programs authorized by the federal Farm Bill.

Make your yard more attractive to birds and other wildlife by becoming an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat®.

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Published: November 10, 2010